Psychedelics and Their Place in Modern Pharmacology, a Q&A with Andrew Hegle, Ph.D.

Dr. Andrew Hegle currently serves as Entheon Biomedical’s Director of Operations. He has been an adjunct professor of Pharmacology at the University of British Columbia since 2015. He has a background in molecular biology and biochemistry and has published research investigating membrane receptor proteins’ role in physiology, behaviour and disease. He was a co-founder of both Cannevert Therapeutics and Canalytic Laboratories in Vancouver. Andrew is responsible for putting all of the elements needed for Entheon to commence clinical trials. This involves planning, timelines, budgets, protocols for the drug development process, working with clinicians and more.  

Tell me about your background and why you chose to work with Entheon Biomedical.

I did my Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at the University of Michigan before coming to Vancouver in 2007. I then spent six years working at the University of British Columbia (UBC) researching cardiovascular health, genetics, and neuroscience. I then decided to move away from academia and began working on a startup company in the cannabis space focused on pain relief, and even with all of the hype that there was in the sector, what was important to us was putting the science behind it and setting up clinical trials. I spent about five years doing that while getting involved with UBC’s pharmacology department before joining Entheon.

There seems to be an increasing amount of interest in the psychedelic therapy field now. Why do you think that is?

Firstly, I am a big believer in psychedelics’ therapeutic potential, and I believe that the increasing interest in the area is due to a confluence of things. Certainly, the decriminalization and reassessment of cannabis use for therapeutic purposes broke down some taboos around psychoactive drugs and their possibilities. But more generally, I think that because we live in a more connected world, people can more easily learn about how diverse cultures approach things. Consider, for example, how ayahuasca is understood and used in South America, which is in stark contrast to the war on the United States’ drug culture.

And at the same time, society is in the midst of a mental health crisis, and there is a desperate need for new tools to combat this. Incidence of depression, loneliness, and dependence on substances like opioids are all at an all-time high. In this urgent crisis, I think that psychedelics are a prominent tool that we should be leveraging for mental health treatments. We already know these drugs have many potential benefits, but no one has fully explored their potential in the clinic until recently. Steven Barker described this research as “forbidden fruit long ripening on the tree of knowledge,” which I think is a great metaphor.

Are psychedelics Cannabis 2.0?

I don’t really like this comparison because I think it’s very different. It’s genuinely apples and oranges. I can certainly understand that these could be put into a similar category and thought of as street drugs in the average person’s mind. But I believe that the therapeutic benefit that psychedelics have compared to cannabis will be much more impactful.

Why does DMT interest you in particular?

DMT is an endogenous molecule, meaning that it’s in our brains already. It wasn’t invented in a lab; our bodies naturally do so, so it’s not poison. When new drugs are created from scratch, we often don’t know what kinds of side effects they may have, so it’s exciting to work with an endogenous molecule because we already know that it has a good safety profile.

DMT is fascinating because it is a very simple molecule that can be metabolized quickly and isn’t complicated. We don’t have to worry about by-products or different metabolic artifacts that other drugs might have.

How important is an integrated approach with psychedelic therapy? 

With psychedelics, it’s not just about the drug, it is everything around it too. The setting and the patient’s mental state are crucial, including psychotherapy and working with a therapist for multiple hours before and after so you can make sense of what has happened. It isn’t like most drugs where you develop it, improve it, and your doctor sends you home with it. It is an entirely different paradigm.

I see these substances being successful with addiction, treatment-resistant depression and a range of other issues. But it must be done with supervision in a clinic. That said, you don’t want to do it in a sterile hospital room with beeping machines and white walls. You have to have it in the right space, with therapy and with an integrative approach. And this is the kind of reality for which Entheon is developing tools.

See the entire Entheon team.